By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Hot and humid days have come early to Texas this year. Along the Gulf Coast, perceived temperatures - what it feels like when heat and humidity are combined - run more than 100 degrees. Hot weather is also the time for picnics, backyard barbecues, dips and cold, dressed salads. In other words, it is the season of rapidly spoiling food and food-borne illnesses.

In the past seven years, according to Dr. Dawn Norton, an epidemic intelligence service officer for the Food-born and Diarrheal Diseases Branch of the Centers for Disease Control, bacterial food-borne illnesses have dropped about 23 percent. Much of this is due to food safety programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration at the food production level.

Still, according to an article by staff writer Judith Rusk of the journal Infectious Diseases in Children, food-borne diseases cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year and are most dangerous in the young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Here are hints provided by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture (www.fsis.usda.gov) to make summer outdoor meals safe for family and guests.

  • Wash hands and preparation surfaces often with hot soapy water. Use hot soapy water - not just a paper towel - to clean up spills in the refrigerator, including spills from lunchmeat products and hotdogs. Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water after they come in contact with raw food.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from vegetables, fruits, breads and other foods already prepared for eating.
  • Use a meat thermometer. Cook hamburgers to 160 degrees, roasts and steaks to 145 degrees for medium rare.
  • Ground poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees and poultry parts to 170 degrees.
  • Cook fish until it is opaque and flakes easily.
  • When barbecuing with charcoal, preheat coals on the grill for 20 to 30 minutes or until the cubes are coated with a grey ash.
  • Do not put cooked food items back on a plate that previously held raw food.
  • When marinating for long periods of time prior to cooking, keep food in the refrigerator.
  • Don't use leftover marinating sauce on foods already cooked and ready to serve unless you boil it.
  • If you transport foods any distance after preparation, pack plenty of extra ice or freezer packs to ensure a constant cold temperature in the cooler.
  • Finally, refrigerate leftovers promptly after the meal and, when shopping, refrigerate perishables - including ready-to-eat foods - within two hours.

The chance of suffering serious consequences from food-borne illness is relatively small. But careless handling of food during the hot season can lead to a ruined weekend get-together, or more seriously, absence from school or work or even hospitalization.

Following the USDA tips above will go a long way to preserve your reputation as a careful cook and ensure that your family's only brush with food-borne disease will come from reading articles like this in the newspaper.
 

Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.